Is Free Will Real?

free will

Is free will real? This is one of the most fundamental questions in the history of philosophy. Recent work in philosophy, theology, and the natural sciences points in conflicting directions – both within and across fields. The Big Questions in Free Will (BQFW) project aims to promote a resolution of these conflicts by fostering collaborative research along three dimensions.

Although the BQFW project offers funding under three different headings, the project intends to favor research that takes advantage of interdisciplinary approaches. Too often research on free will in the humanities goes on in ways that fail to engage the rapidly growing reservoir of relevant empirical data.

However, it is also true that scientific work on free will often fails to reflect on the various models of free will that have been articulated in the philosophical tradition and to utilize the important conceptual distinctions developed within these traditions.

The BQFW project aims to remedy these shortcomings in a few ways. The first way is intended to promote greater conceptual clarity and transparency. As in so many types of interdisciplinary research, conceptual and linguistic clarity is important (and rare). Discussions of free will often employ common terminology, albeit used in equivocal ways.

This can result in experimental designs that do not actually target the phenomena that experimenters intend to investigate. It also results in scholars within and between disciplines talking past one another.

To address this concern, an interdisciplinary team of experts (directed by Alfred Mele, BQFW director) has developed a lexicon of key terms that are commonly used in discussion of free will. Applicants will need to use the lexicon when preparing and submitting proposals for consideration.

In some cases, key words and phrases have multiple meanings, and those are registered in the lexicon. Applicants who use any of the key words or phrases must indicate which sense they attach to it. If the definition intended by the author of a proposal is not included in the lexicon, the author must supply his or her own definition in the narrative of the proposal.

Second, the BQFW project encourages applicants to work together in interdisciplinary teams. Doing so allows scholars in the humanities to incorporate the most recent, relevant empirical data in their work on free will. It also allows researchers in the sciences to avail themselves of the important conceptual distinctions that have shaped the philosophical and theological discussions of free will.

Third, recipients of grant awards will attend and present results of work in progress and completed research at interdisciplinary colloquia that will occur periodically throughout the term of the grant period.

Despite the interdisciplinary nature of the work that the BQFW project is intended to support, it is also true that research projects of this sort have natural disciplinary homes, and specific types of focused research questions. In light of that, applicants for funds must submit proposals under one of the following three headings:

Dimension 1: The Science of Free Will

The reality and nature of free will is one of the most fundamental concerns raised within contemporary neuroscience, social psychology, and philosophy. Approaching the issue of free will within this context leads to a host of related big questions:

Is there any scientific evidence that human beings sometimes make free decisions?
Is there any scientific evidence that our subjective sense of free choice is an illusion?
How might these questions be studied and what would research look like if it took seriously both the latest scientific discoveries and the long and rich traditions of the philosophy of mind and theological anthropology?
How might the newest technology allow us to research these questions more effectively?
How do the data from social psychology bear on the question whether our choices are ever free?
What sorts of experimental designs would be most effective at providing data?
What does quantum theory say about the possibility of indeterminism in the domain of behavior, and can such indeterminism be subject to our control?
How should the results of new experiments be interpreted? Can philosophers assist scientists with experimental design as well as with analyzing and interpreting data?
While the questions posed above might seem utterly natural (indeed compulsory) for scholars engaged in research concerning the science of free will, the truth is that they are too rarely asked and even more rarely answered.

Dimension 2: The Theoretical Underpinnings of Free Will

In addition to issues that arise from analysis of empirical data, there are more strictly theoretical concerns about the nature of free will that remain puzzling. For example, if human beings are physical entities, how is free will possible? Underlying this question is a presumption that physical entities have some characteristic that might render free will impossible. What would that characteristic be? The answer may seem to lie in deterministic features or at least subjection to (perhaps non-deterministic) natural laws.

Some philosophers – compatibilists – argue, however, that free will and subjection to natural law are not incompatible after all. Are they right? And if so, what explains the inclination to view free will and subjection to natural law as incompatible?

There are philosophers – incompatibilists – who argue that genuine free will requires an independence from determinism if not from subjection to natural law altogether. Yet this idea faces two challenging theoretical hurdles. The first hurdle is to explain how indeterministic or “lawless” acts can still lie within the control of the agent. The second hurdle is to explain how (apparently physical) agents come to have these seemingly magical law-skirting powers. Some argue that these powers are conferred on agents by unexpected features of the quantum world, while others claim that these abilities “emerge” from underlying configurations of matter from which they are nonetheless truly distinct. Neither of these positions has yet been fully developed.

Key questions from this second dimension include:

Is free will compatible with determinism or subjection to natural law?
If so, how can these determined or law-governed actions be the target of moral assessment? And why are many people inclined to resist belief in such compatibility?
If not, how can “lawless action” be within our control?
How can agents have the powers that seem requisite for free action?
Are there aspects of quantum reality that explain the abilities of agents to break the seeming grip of determinism on macroscopic reality generally?
Are the powers of agents emergent from lower orders of physical reality? How is such emergence possible?
How can emergent powers act (via “downward causation”) in such a way as to orchestrate bodily behavior?
Do we find emergent properties, powers, or even substances elsewhere in nature?
Is downward causation possible and if so how?

happy people

Dimension 3: The Theology of Free Will

The possibility and reality of free will is linked to key theological concerns. Because of recent developments in philosophical theology and philosophy of religion, two such concerns are especially relevant.

First, in many theological traditions, God not only has free will, but has it in paradigmatic ways. Sir John Templeton held that free will is one of the many ways in which human beings manifest, albeit imperfectly, the perfect freedom of God. It is such freedom that, in his view, permits human beings to be not mere “conduits of change” but “agents of change” in the world. Among other things, this distinctive capacity underlies our ability to act as co-creators with God.

Yet reflection on divine freedom immediately raises significant puzzles, including concerns such as: “If God is perfect, then God is compelled to choose the best – a compulsion that appears incompatible with free will.” How might reflection on such concerns enhance our understanding of free will? Might what is central to free will be, not “choice among alternatives” as some claim, but rather, “choice that is not constrained by external factors/forces.” If that is right, there is a radical shift in the direction of thinking concerning free will.

Second, recent work on the compatibility of divine providence and human free will has come to somewhat of an impasse. While this issue has many dimensions that have been debated for centuries, the present impasse concerns the viability of two primary positions which have been articulated with increasing precision: Molinism and Openism. The theological implications of each view are stark and broad-ranging; the intellectual tipping point between them rests centrally on questions about the nature and foreknowability of free actions. Relevant questions raised by this disagreement include:

Are future free actions in principle foreknowable?
Can foreknowability render future actions unfree?
Do certain conceptions of time preclude the possibility of foreknowability? Or, alternatively, does foreknowability require certain conceptions of time?
Can propositions about future free actions be true and false? If so, what would be required for their truth/falsity?
Must propositions, such as those concerning free choice, be “made true” by some grounds or truthmaker? If so, what could the truthmaker be for such propositions?
In any case, can God have access to the grounds for such propositions? If so, how?
If God orchestrates the future using such knowledge, does that negate our responsibility for our acts?
Do certain divine attributes constrain human free will, such as providence (or omniscience)? Is there a conception of providence that does not undermine free will? If not, are ideas like kenosis or Open Theism adequate to the task of accounting for the reality of divine providence?
What do theological understandings of human nature that consider imago dei, sin, salvation, and sanctification contribute to the notion of free will?

These questions seem answerable in principle; but, as yet, clear answers to them have not emerged.